Michigan State football’s 2022 season is finally kicking off today, as the Spartans host the Western Michigan Broncos.
Ranked No. 15 in the AP Preseason Poll, expectations have shifted for Michigan State after last year’s impressive showing. Fans and the media are looking to East Lansing for more than just a bowl berth or a winning record - Michigan State is expected to make some noise in the conference.
“The external expectations have shifted,” Head Coach Mel Tucker said. “We have standards and expectations for ourselves - they’re high, and that hasn’t changed.”
New season, new team
It’s been nine long months since Michigan State’s victory over Pitt in the Peach Bowl, and there's been plenty of roster turnover in the offseason.
To start, the Spartans lost a handful of key contributors in the offseason. Star running back Kenneth Walker III is off to the NFL. Tight end Connor Heyward, wide receiver Jalen Nailor, guard Kevin Garvis, defensive ends Drew Beesley and Jacob Panasiuk and kicker Matt Coughlin are a few other departures that could impact the team. There are plenty of roles that need to be filled heading into the 2022 season.
Last year’s transfers played a massive part in the team’s 11-2 season, headlined by Walker. This offseason, Tucker went back to the portal, adding a few players that have the potential to carve out significant roles with the squad.
Michigan State added two running backs, redshirt sophomore Jalen Berger from Wisconsin and fifth-year senior Jarek Broussard from Colorado. While it's unlikely that either back ends up with a Walker-type season, both have plenty of potential. MSU also has a few in-house options if need be. As it stands, it looks to be running back from committee - unless someone can run away with the top spot.
The Spartans also added a few new faces on defense. Linebacker senior Jacoby Windmon, from UNLV, is the most proven of the bunch. Through three seasons with the Rebels, Windom notched 12 sacks, 18.5 TFLs and 169 career tackles. In the process, Windmon earned two All-Mountain West honors (second team in 2021, honorable mention in 2020).
Senior defensive end Kris Bogle from the University of Florida is another new defender with a chance to positively impact the Spartans' defense. Bogle doesn’t have the track record of a Windmon (he was not a consistent starter for the Gators), but his 6-foot-4 inch, 245-pound frame certainly makes his presence hard to ignore. Ideally, Bogle will bring a physical edge to MSU's D-line.
Sixth-year CB Ameer Speed from Georgia, sixth-year OL Brian Greene out of Washington State and fifth-year TE Daniel Barker are a few other transfers that fans should keep an eye on this year.
While several positions still aren’t set in stone, the Spartans have stability where it matters: at quarterback.
At the start of 2021, the quarterback situation was murky, with then-sophomore Payton Thorne and graduate student Anthony Russo battling it out for the starting role. This season, Thorne is comfortably the team's No. 1 quarterback.
“We’re very fortunate to have him back,” Tucker said. “He’s grown tremendously as a leader.”
Thorne’s development is key if Michigan State wants to make any noise in the Big Ten this year.
Scouting the opponent
Western Michigan is somewhat of a familiar opponent for Michigan State. The two programs have met six times since 2009, with the Spartans winning all six.
Despite the lopsided history, Western Michigan has proven in the past that it can pull off some shockers in the non-conference. Just last year, the Broncos beat Pitt (the 2021 ACC Champions) 44-41 on the road.
In 2021, Western Michigan’s strength was its offense, as the team finished twelfth in the nation in yards per game.
However, there’s been quite a lot of change for the Broncos offense this offseason. Wide receiver Skyy Moore was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round and quarterback Kaleb Eleby is an NFL undrafted free agent. Newly minted offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne, who happens to be Payton Thorne’s father, is stepping into his first Division I coaching gig. In short, it’s unclear what the Broncos' passing attack will look like in 2022, especially considering the inexperience in the quarterback room.
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Despite the shakeup, there are still a few proven talents still on the roster. Junior wide receiver Corey Crooms is the most productive returning receiver, finishing with 768 yards and six touchdowns last season. On the ground, Western has a pair of dependable backs in junior Sean Tyler and senior La’Darius Jefferson. The duo combined for 19 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards last season.
Defensively, Western Michigan has solid MAC talent sprinkled throughout, with the linebacker core likely the strongest position of the lot (seniors Corvin Moment and Zaire Barnes are the two to keep an eye on).
At the end of the day, it’s clear Michigan State is clearly the more talented team. However, the beauty of college football is that games aren’t always won by the most talented squads. However slim the odds might be, there’s always a chance for an upset.
Tucker is hell-bent on ensuring his team doesn’t overlook their opening opponent, however large the talent gap may be.
“Whatever we see on film from these guys, they’re gonna be better than that,” Tucker said. “We have to play our fannies off.”
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